Today’s Gospel is one of many times that we see a heated confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Especially as we read John’s Gospel, we see the tensions escalate the closer things get to Good Friday. After all, today’s Gospel is just the first time the Jews attempt to stone Jesus.
To understand why this plays out the way it does, we have to look at the Reading in context. John 7-8 happens during the Feast of Tabernacles, the greatest feast of the Jewish year. While it was an agricultural feast, occurring at the time of harvest and thanking God that the land had given its fruit, its underlying theme was one of the Messiah, salvation, and the end times. It looked ahead to the Messiah standing in Jerusalem, and all the nations streaming to Him. Throughout the Feast Jesus was making it publicly clear that He was the one who would fulfill the Feast of Tabernacles. All nations would stream to Him, the source of the living water that all men need. He will grant salvation and eternal life.
It all comes to a head at the end of chapter 8 when we hear today’s Gospel, Jesus telling the Jews that they are of their father, the devil, and are opposed to the things of God. Jesus appeals to Abraham. The Jews prided themselves as being Abraham’s children. But then Jesus revealed that He is greater than Abraham, existing before him, and that He was the one for whom Abraham waited. Abraham believed God would bless the world through the one to come from his line, and that belief was counted to him as righteousness. The Jews were confronted by the Law. Their own father condemned them. Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day, and now his children hate the one in whom their father rejoiced.
Jesus in clear, unmistakable words reveals Himself as the promised Messiah, very God of very God. He claims the Divine Name, I AM, as His own. And that’s when they pick up stones to kill Him. They accuse Him of blasphemy, of claiming the attributes of God. Which is backwards and reveals their hearts. If anyone was blasphemous, it was the Jews. They invented laws. They put the traditions of men over and above the Word of God.
Their response to Jesus’ preaching of the Law is the same one we have: anger. They were cut to the quick, but instead of repenting, they dug in their heels in obstinate anger and tried to silence the one who made them feel bad. Which reveals that a Pharisee lives inside each one of us. When the Law does its accusing work, we turn away from it, not in shame, but in hot anger. We don’t like the challenge to our flesh. We don’t like to hear that those things we want to do are bad. So we call evil good and good evil, just as the Jews accused Jesus of being a Samaritan with a demon. We insult pious living and call it being “holier than thou.” Instead of being thankful for the loving correction of a brother or sister, we snap back “Why don’t you deal with the plank in your own eye first.” We try to use Scripture against those who correct us when really Scripture is against us. All this means that the harsh way Jesus spoke to the Pharisees is the way He should speak to us. He should tell us that we are children of the devil, that we are not of God.
But remember that even harsh words serve a purpose. Those harsh words against the Pharisees were to open their eyes to the truth, to bring them to repentance. The bigger the crime, the harsher the punishment. In this case, the crime was rejection of the salvation God had sent, the salvation promised from Eden, prefigured in the near sacrifice of Isaac, and dimly reflected in the spilled blood of ever sacrifice offered. Jesus wanted them to see that their rejection of Him and their insisting on their own way of salvation put them in league with the devil.
So it is for us. When we are confronted for our sin, no matter how much we hate it, no matter how much it anger us, it is a picture of the love God has for us, the love that corrects and restores the wayward and erring. Love is not allowing someone to continue on to their harm, but stepping in to bring them back into what is good and right and safe.
But Jesus suffers for it. The Jews take up stones to take His life. We chafe at the message and become indignant. Even though they look different on the surface, both reactions really are the same. They both wish Jesus would stop His work of confronting and calling to repentance. But Jesus escapes the Jews’ stones because His hour has not yet come. He goes to that hour so He can suffer of His own accord.
We have a God who delights in suffering. Not ours, but His own. We have a God who is willing to suffer out of love to save and redeem sinners. He calls all to Himself, bidding the nations come and find in Him the promised Messiah, the one who gladly offers Himself. He is the One who stands in for Isaac. Abraham rejoices in Jesus’ day, not only because it spares his only-begotten son, but because Jesus’ sacrifice avails in a way Isaac’s never could have. Jesus spares us, His siblings, so we can go free. He lets the Law do its worst. And He offers up His innocent Blood that does what the Blood of goats and the ashes of a heifer could never do.
At the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus reveals that He is the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands. He has come to dwell among His people to bring light to the darkness, forgiveness to sin, and life to death. Like those gathering for the Feast looked ahead to the end of all things when the Messiah would gather His scattered flock, we, too, look ahead. We eagerly await Jesus’ crucifixion and His resurrection. We cling to the annual repeating of those events because in them we see the depth of God’s love for us. We know that because of those events, whose benefit is given to us in the holy Sacraments, we are forgiven. Jesus has stepped in as our Substitute, offering His perfect, holy Blood in our place, and by that same Blood has made us holy. Because we have been washed with it and fed with it, we will be part of the multitude which no one can count that is gathered before the throne of God in heaven. Then we will not have a perishable, temporary dwelling, but an eternal home with God.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.